So I’m going to start by ack-scent-uating the positive. First. Olivia Wilde is hot. But if I stopped there, then logic would dictate that the Transformers movies are good simply because Megan Fox is hot. As we know. This is not the case. The Transformers movies are not good. End of story. So, lets dig deeper.
Tron:Legacy is a gorgeous film to look at. I specifically went to the 6-story IMAX screen at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle so that I could remove the visual quality out of the critique. I do have to note though the there was occasional schmutz on the screen, and only in the left eye. Clean your glass people. That kind of stuff hurts the brain.
Back to the visuals — the folks at Digital Domain, Prime Focus, et al did an outstanding job of bringing us into the world of Tron, following the designs from the director Joseph Kosinski (who is, himself an architect coming from Columbia University) and former concept car designer Daniel Simon. These guys, BTW, were taking a cue from the first film that was designed by futurist design leader Syd Mead. SO! The environments and vehicle design were not going to suffer. And they don’t. The glassy look of the whole world is enveloping and captivating. The integration of of characters, are equally spot on.
While we are talking about the technical, lets take a look at Clu 2. The mirror representation of Kevin Flynn and the metaphorical representation of Adam: created in the likeness of his creator. Digital Domain took its award-winning approach that it used in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and transposed it to our Clu character, representing Jeff Bridges 25 years ago. I’m going to preface the follow with this: Digitally recreating a well known human character is nothing short of magic. All credit for this accomplishment is well deserved by the Clu team. However, the end result isn’t completely successful. The performance is stilted and awkward. I attribute this to a number of different reasons.
1) There was a ton of work to do and not enough time to do it.
2) The rig to capture Jeff Bridges’ performance was not ideal. Basically an erector set of small cameras around his head while he performed. Undoubtedly, this was to give Bridges freedom to emote and act in context. But, the imagery to recreate the facial movement was not clean. Lighting was poor and changed during the performance. And refer to reason 1) .. the animators probably didn’t have enough time to finesse the data into a better performance.
3) and the most important. We are familiar with Jeff Bridges, and have been for many years. We subconsciously know how he behaves. We can tell when its Jeff Bridges and when its not, even if we can’t pinpoint why. So we know what he was like 25 years ago. In the case with Benjamin Button, we are not familiar with Brad Pitt 50 years from now, so our suspension of disbelief is more complete. We can role with it because our brain isn’t screaming at us that this is NOT Brad Pitt.
End result? I was taken out of the film every time Clu was on screen. My brain shifted to CG Supervisor mode, and I’m analyzing the flaws rather than being engrossed in the film.
Now to the deeper stuff.
Story. This is a typical Campbellian Hero’s Journey and all the pieces are in the right place. But they somehow don’t fit together. Reluctant hero, mentor figure who sacrifices himself/herself, journey, tasks, emerge from the cave and hero changed forever. I don’t know. It just doesn’t play. Also, there are some inconsistencies in the rules of the world that were established in the first film. There are doubles in the “Grid” of the users that created them. Sark was Dillinger’s double. Tron was Alan’s double. But we lost that. I totally expected to find Cillian Murphy’s double inside the Grid. Nada. When Tron went to the darkside, how did that affect Alan in the real world?
Story starts off fine. Kevin Flynn tells his son, Sam, a fable, and then mysteriously disappears. Hurt, angst, why did he leave? All that turns Sam into a rebellious youth bent on playing high-tech annual pranks on the new chairs of his father’s company. This is where we find out that Sam is smart, knows how to ride a motorcycle with skill, and that he knows how to….wait for it… BASE jump. This is somehow to convince us that it is plausible for Sam to do some of the implausible activities that he does in this implausible world. If this logic were to continue, then we should have had a scene with him playing ultimate frisbee — or at the very least a trophy in his apartment showing that he excelled in frisbee throwing. In the first Tron, there was no question that Kevin Flynn could do amazing things. Why? Because he was a User. End of story. The reason that I’m annoyed by this shallow bit of filmmaking, is the scene where the security guard equivalent of Barney Fife follows Sam out onto a crane arm on the top of the Encom building. Why? Who would do that? Answer? No one. All this silliness to 1) show that Sam is the primary shareholder of Encom (which we already knew because…he is Flynn’s son) and 2) that he is skilled at BASE jumping.
OK. So Sam is arrested for breaking into his own building and presumably unauthorized BASE jumping. But he’s been in jail before, as indicated by his first-name basis with the impound guy. He drives to his secret BatCave-like apartment next to a river to find Alan Bradley aka Tron inside. Alan tells him he got a page from Flynn’s arcade and mentions to Sam that he should go check it out. The inciting incident for our reluctant hero.
Sam ends up in the Grid and quickly finds himself in the game area, a place we presume to be a bad thing given the voluntary deletion of a program rather than facing the games again. Sam has to learn the rules of the discs game — probably because he isn’t a professional frisbee athelete — and goes through numerous rounds with greater skill levels until he has to face the dude with two discs, Rinzler — who isn’t difficult to figure out is Tron behind a shielded mask (a smart choice to avoid having to digitally recreate younger versions of TWO actors on a large scale). During the battle, Rinzler-Tron gets Sam into a position of defeat, when he sees blood and realizes that Sam is a User. Death is postponed, and instead, Sam is brought to the Big Guy who is masked as well.
Sam, in a strange world, is brought deeper into the cave to face his masked foe … which ends up being his Dad, Kevin Flynn. But it doesn’t take but a few moments for Sam to realize that this not his Dad, but rather is Clu, who is evidently not a nice guy. Clu’s second hand is a completely ludicrous Jarvis who has no real reason to be in the story. This character could have been strong and dangerous had it been a program from Dillinger’s son (Cillian Murphy). Instead, he’s like a little lap dog running around Clu saying “What are we gonna do today, Spike? Whaddyawegonnado? I know some cats we can chase! That’d be fun, huh?”
So its time for Sam’s next equivalent of Hercules’ tasks — the light cycles. In a visually beautiful upgrade to the original, the lightcycle terrain is a multilevel, ever changing environment. Glassy so that you can see your opponents above and below. The dangerous light emission is a glowy wall that looklike hard candy, but not as sweet. We’ve already been shown that Sam knows how to ride. Therefore, we aren’t questioning the story. 😐 For some reason, Sam has to convince his teammate lightcyclers that working as a team would be better. I’m not sure if this is supposed to indicate that the Grid is a world of “every man for himself” or what? But oh, well. His teammates are quickly dispatched by Clu’s team, and Sam is saved from derezzing (even though he’s a User) only by the intervention of Quorra, who had been surveying Sam’s activites. She takes him beyond the Grid and out of Clu’s reach, and Rinzler-Tron.
As a side note, Rinzler-Tron seems to have this ongoing need for taking on the action of heroic characters falling from great heights to land in a three point pose on one knee. WHO DOES THIS?!! Evidently EVERYONE! As far as martial arts and battle training goes, I have enough to get me a black belt, so I have less than most professional martial artists, but more than the general population, and I have NEVER seen anyone do this in a chase or a fight. In fact, if someone landed like this in the middle of a fight, their opponent would kick them in the face before they could look up. At best, I would think that one would try to roll out of a landing from a high fall. Someone please correct me on this. Otherwise tell filmmakers to quit using this nonsense.
Quorra brings Sam to his father, who has been imprisoned in the Grid for decades of Grid-years, after Clu setup a coup. You see, Flynn gave Clu the programming to create a perfect world. In the process, an organic-like program spontaneously was created in the Grid, the Isomorphic Algorithms (ISOs), beyond the control or planning of Flynn. Flynn saw this as a wonderful miracle. Clu saw it as an imperfection and felt slighted that Flynn might change the rules to save these new programs. Clu, had a childish tantrum and tried to have Flynn killed. Tron helped Flynn escape by dispatching his would be assassins. Somehow between then and now, Tron became Rinzler, but thats never revealed. Clu took over and led a thin metaphor of Nazi ethnic cleansing, getting rid of the ISOs, rationalizing that they were a threat to the perfect system. Quorra is a surviving ISO.
I frankly like this aspect of the story. The parallels between God and Man/User and Program — compounded with the spontaneous creation of the ISOs is kinda cool. The Nazi spin on Clu is a bit heavy handed, but at least Kosinski is consistent with it with the purges, the Nuremburg Rally, the transportation of programs in transit containers, the building of an army.
Against, his father’s recommendation, Sam heads out to “the Portal”, the exit back out to the real world, a place that acts as the metaphoric equivalent to the gates of Heaven. He needs to get to the outside world, where he can eliminate Clu with a stroke of the keyboard. Quorra helps him by providing him with Flynn’s lightcycle (gift to the hero from the God’s) in order to go find Zuse, who once fought for the ISOs. Well, the journey to Zuse is the next Herculean task, with very obvious Greek mythological overtones, but, admirably, the name holds a second meaning. Konrad Zuse was a german engineer to create the first program driven computer in 1941. But instead of the elderly sage that we expect based on both meanings of his name, we find a character who Alan Cummings would accuse of being gay. He has changed his name to Castor, possibly alluding to the wheel that turns in the direction its pushed, and also an Open Source data binding framework for Java. He turns Sam in to the authorities, and in a sequence that annoyed me more than Ruby Rod in The Fifth Element, Sam and Quorra battle the bad guys while Castor relishes, dancing around like Liberace, missing only a diamond-encrusted piano and a live ocelot as a hat.
I’m going to take a moment at this point to comment on the Daft Punk electronica soundtrack. I mention it now because it is so specifically pointed out by Castor for the DJs to change the music — which, not surprisingly, doesn’t sound any different than the previous track. This little scene is a microcosm of the film as a whole. Now, I’m not a fan of electronic-dance-house-thump-thump music, so I haven’t developed an ear for it. But I feel that the soundtrack actively removed any kind of emotional swell that the film could have had. I will return to this a little later.
Kevin Flynn comes in to save the day, but not in time to prevent Quorra from becoming mortally wounded. And in the process, his identity disc removed — which is the key to allowing Clu to access the portal and User world. This is now the second time that Sam has been saved by forces beyond him. I’m not a keen proponent of our hero being saved by others — especially at the last minute. This is a problem of many of the Harry Potter movies as well. Harry needed a phoenix sent by Dumbledore to bring him a sword to fight the basilisk (as an example).
The Trio escape with Rinzler-Tron in hot pursuit, landing on one knee at every opportunity. Clu gets Flynn’s ID disc from Castor, and then destroys Castor’s club with Castor in it, saving us from any further exposure to Ruby Rod antics.
The Hero Trio hop a solar sailer to head over the Sea of Simulation (?!) toward the portal. This is our lull in the action to give the audience a breather, and for lots of dialog to happen to provide needed exposition and some father/son bonding. This also gives Flynn some time to heal Quorra and reconstruct the arm she lost in the last battle. The music score seemingly hasn’t changed. As our expositional lull comes to an end they run across the Clu mothership where Flynn’s doppelganger has rallied a huge army to bring them into the User world to take over. A this point I’m wondering: 1) what are they thinking they are going to do in the User world. 2) Clu is leading them to a place that he has denied the existence of. 3) no one has any information about the world they are going to conquer, at least nothing that the story has provided. 4) they don’t even know if they can EXIST in this new world. It doesn’t sound like Clu has a clue. Perhaps a bit of reconnaissance could be useful before a full scale invasion. Not even Hitler was this insane.
The Trio develop a plan that Flynn will go hijack a ship while Sam and the now healed Quorra will go get Flynn’s disc back (the last of the Herculean tasks — to add even more mythology, the disc is located in a tower. Despite Sam’s failure in fighting Castor’s guards mere hours earlier, he and Quorra have no problem dispatching the elite guards who protect the disc — the most important thing to Clu and his plans. In fact, they temporarily take out Rinzler-Tron. They grab the disc, and jump out of the tower using digital parachute-y like wings to take them down to the awaiting Flynn in the hijacked lightjet. FINALLY, the seed that was planted two hours ago comes to fruition and we understand why Sam had to leap off a 70-story building with a parachute. And I thought there would NEVER be a pay-off.
Clu, Rinzler-Tron, and a company of red shirts go in hot pursuit to try and retrieve the ID disc. An aerial battle ensues which was taken directly out of Star Wars with Sam at the rear guns firing back at the pursuing evil-doers. But WAIT, there was no establishment that Sam knows how to fire huge air-to-air guns!! I just didn’t believe it….. The scene takes us whirling though a stereoscopic whirlwind of rocky pinnacles and the liquid-y glass emissions from the ships that are like the deadly trails of the lightcycles. Basically, ALL the elements of an exciting scene are present. But it’s yawn inducing. I’m in the theater, actually consciously wondering why the sequence is so mundane. Then, I started mentally replacing the droning thump of the score with the emotionally injected score from John Williams that accompanied the Millennium Falcon-Tie Fighter battle that this Tron sequence was clearly derived. Suddenly, everything became exciting. It was at that moment that I began to look back at the score as a whole, and how utterly ineffective it was. Therein lies the difference between a composer who creates music to support the story as a whole and a couple of DJs who apparently don’t.
In the excitement of the moment, Rinzler-Tron suddenly has a change of heart and decides that he fights for the users, and turns to take out Clu in a kamikaze maneuver. This change is so out of the blue, that I simply don’t buy it. Even with Darth Vader, you could feel the internal emotional battle he was going through as the Emperor attempted to recruit and then kill Luke Skywalker. For Rinzler-Tron, it felt like he was flying along, trying to do Clu’s bidding, and then said to himself “Jeezus, what the Hell am I DOING? This Clu guy is BAD!” In order for this to work, we needed to see much more in the body language that showed Tron trying to break through his Rinzler reprogramming, or whatever the heck Clu did to him after allowing Flynn to flee.
With Clu and Rinzler-Tron out of the equation, Flynn, Quorra, and Sam are free to head to the Portal. But wait! Clu and Rinzler-Tron are freefalling. They get into a mid-air brawl and Clu kicks away Rinzler-Tron and takes his handlebars (the key to making lightvehicles). Really? Rinzler-Tron is all bad-ass throughout the entire movie, and he’s overcome by a kick? Hardly believable. Clu turns his handlebars into a lightjet and flies off. Rinzler-Tron falls into the sea below, and his red lighting turns to blue as he sinks into the darkness and movie sequels.
Back at the portal, the Trio get ready to portal away. I’m still unsure of what is supposed to happen to Quorra, who is not only a program, but an ISO. How is she supposed to exist in the real world? But then, GASP! their path is blocked by Clu..the final Herculean task. The final boss. Flynn tells Sam to stay back and that this is his fight. But really its to give Clu time to whine about how he created the perfect world and desperately needs Daddy’s approval. Sam gets over to the edge of the portal. Quorra joins him with an totally unnecessary Cirque De Soleil move to swing around Clu. Clu goes after Flynn and his ID Disc. He grabs it, and we find that they have switched the disc with Quorra’s — duping the villan. Flynn and Sam yell back and forth for the next five minutes debating whether Flynn needs to go back to the User world, and how Sam won’t leave him, while Clu hangs off the broken walkway.
As Sam and Quorra go through the portal, in a final moment of self-sacrifice, Flynn blows up, destroying everything around him including the mothership and the armies on it.
Back in the real world. Sam shuts a computer down. Goes out into the arcade to see Alan walking around. Sam gives Alan the new job of CEO and that Sam, himself, has given up his old ways, and will be part of the company. He goes out and Quorra is alive and well and inexplicably, and unfortunately, dressed in street clothes. The two go driving across the countryside in the motorcycle with Quorra looking wide-eyed at her new world.
I cannot stress how beautiful the visuals and sound design (not score) are. Absolutely top notch. In fact, I’m in a bit of confusion still as to how Tron could be overlooked for a visual effects Oscar nomination even after the number of nominees have been upped to five. And as a study, it should be viewed by designers, animators, matte painters, and visual effects people. With that said, I’d have to say that despite the amount of fantastic work done, it is no where NEAR the ingenuity that the original FX guys and animators were doing for the first TRON. They were doing stuff that had NEVER been done before, while TRON:Legacy was doing stuff that we’ve been doing for years — just doing a lot of it. And you know what? So did Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.
This is not a film I would recommend for a filmic experience. I wouldn’t even recommend it for a 3D experience. I found myself removing my glasses to analyze the convergence to see just how much they were trying to push the 3D — which often was not very much. Now, when I’m doing that, it means that I’m not remotely involved in the story. And ultimately, the film has failed as a film.